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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Accidental Racist

I picked up All Aunt Hagar's Children, the new collection of stories by Edward P. Jones (the writer who became famous when he published The Known World), at the bookstore and after reading a few sentences I was hooked. I bought the book and went home and plunged into it right away. I'm still reading it and being dazzled and disturbed and altogether changed by the experience of being inside the world built up with such attention and such passion by each of these stories. I recommended this book to many people, and to one group I said, "What I love most about this book is that I'm learning so much about black people; the stories are about such a broad range of characters, from criminals to people who went to college." It occurred to me only some hours later, when it was too late to apologize, that what I had said sounded racist. Why did I start my list of the book's characters with "criminals"? (Well, in my defense, the story that I'd just finished reading was about a criminal. But why did that stick so much more vividly in my head than any of the other chracters?) Why had I said "people who go to college" instead of doctors and lawyers and teachers, which is what I had meant to say?

This mistake has been eating at me for quite a few days now. I don't know what else to do except write about it and try to make sense of the reasons why I said what I did. I read a few months ago about unconscious racism, about the connections we make between black and bad, and white and good without being aware of it, without meaning harm but doing harm nevertheless, just because we grow up in a particular social class and racial group. Out of ignorance, basically. I value Jones's book because it jolts me out of this unconscious stereotyping. I value it because it exposes myself to myself. I feel miserable that I made such a gaffe in praising it, but my gaffe is proof of how much I need to read and re-read the book, how much I need to seek out experience that will help me unlearn the negative things I've learned about race.

I was innocent once. My only experience of black people in Romania was of a beautiful black man I saw at the open-air market in my home town. Communist African countries and my country had exchange-student programs in the seventies and eighties, and young black men spent years in my country studying medicine or engineering. My uncle was part of a teacher exchange with what was then Zaire; he lived and taught in Africa for several years. I had no opinions about black people before we moved to America; I was fascinated simply by the way they looked. In America, the first friend I ever made -- I should say the first friend who ever made me, because I was too scared of the country and the language to make the first move -- was a black woman, a student at the community college where my sister and I enrolled at the end of our first summer here. My friend had dinner at our house several times and we studied together, and it didn't cross my mind that there was anything extraordinary about that until she confessed that she was nervous the first time she came to my house about what my parents' reaction was going to be to her being black. This floored me. I hadn't given much thought to what it meant that she was black. I didn't think it meant anything special, just like my being white didn't mean anything special.

Then I studied American history and the guilt of being white fell on my head with a huge thud. The first thing I thought was, "I'm not like that. I didn't own slaves, my ancestors didn't own slaves. I'm not like that. I'm not like that." Then I started to pay attention to how I thought and spoke about race. I remembered my revulsion and fear of gypsies, with whom I had a lot of contact in my home town, and how I never wanted to have anything to do with them. These feelings are a long way from open persecution, but still -- cultivating this kind of distance makes persecution and indifference to persecution possible. I was mortified by this discovery. I beat myself up about it. But I don't want to any more.

I want to apologize for my accidental racism. But I also want to say that we're all flawed, we all have prejudices we're not aware of. We're in it together, and that's good. Maybe next time someone will call me up on it when I make a racist remark, tap my shoulder and say, "Wait a minute." I need this kind of help; I really do.


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